Is Work Still Meaningful?

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With jobs scarce, are people looking for purpose in employment anymore?

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How many years of fatigue and punishment it takes to learn the simple truth that work, that disagreeable thing, is the only way of not suffering in life, or at all events, of suffering less.

                                                  –Charles Baudelaire

Last July, a Pew Research Poll offered evidence of what most of us already suspected:  More than half the U.S. labor force had suffered some "work related hardship"—a layoff, a cut in pay or benefits, a reduction in work hours, a demotion.  Statistics are suspect, of course, but there is reason to believe this one carries weight: Today, one of every four American wage earners  is making less in real terms than did minimum wage earners in 1968.  Youth in particular are hard hit; unemployment for 16 to 20-year-olds is a staggering 24 percent, and many recent college grads lucky enough to nail a job are chronically under-employed.  For the first time in modern history young people are being cautioned to lower their expectations. As a teacher, I sense the growing trepidation.  As the mother of two young adults, I feel it, powerfully, so powerfully that I've agreed to write a book on work and its meaning in the 21st century. I'd like your help, but first, some background.

On its face, "meaningful work" may sound elitist, an offshoot of late 20th century "professionalism" that encouraged the privileged few to "express themselves" through their jobs.  And historically, the widespread demand for meaningful jobs is new, a consequence of developments stretching back barely a generation. But the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the knowledge economy created the conditions by which the pursuit and promise of meaning in one's job grew dramatically. And business experts tell me it continues to grow, that young people are more than ever striving to find meaning in work. Today, some employers exploit this trend, offering employees "meaning" as well as money, claims boosted by best-selling authors and motivational speakers who enthuse that meaning can be "made" for employees.  Such claims should give us pause—we're talking about a job here, not a religious experience. And it's notable that the word "job," traced to its 16th-century origins, is defined as a mean and piddling affair, a crude way of turning a buck, not a passport to enlightenment.

But while the impulse to find meaning in one's job may seem naive and vulnerable to corporate distortion, the drive to find meaning in work is not. Our modern tragedy is to mistake a job for work, and to expect any particular job to bring us not only opportunity and income, but meaning, exhilaration, purpose. More than 40 years ago, Ralph Helstein, then president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, shared his thoughts on this in Stud Terkel's classic Working: "Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work.  Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful—not just as the source of a buck—you don't have to worry about finding enough jobs."

Well, maybe. But still, such wisdom is cold comfort for those praying for a break—any break—to get back in the workforce. I'd like your thoughts on this—and on work in general. What I'm asking is that you share your experience of work and your thoughts on its centrality—or not—in your life, your family's life, and your community. You can send them directly to me, or simply comment here. I and The Atlantic community thank you.

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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